Reflections on Inherent Values: The DBAE Literature Project-Part Two. (Moving Forward)
Smith, Ralph A., School Arts
The literature of discipline-based art education raises a number of critical issues that any philosophy of art education must seriously address, not the least of which is the challenge of new ideologies. The Getty initiative appeared in the early 1980s at a time when the cultural and educational atmosphere became politically charged. The critical literature produced in this atmosphere, variously termed postmodernism, cultural studies, social Reconstructionism, and deconstruction, was largely of twentieth-century modernism and the cultural and intellectual values of Western civilization. This literature, moreover, was often dense, esoteric, difficult, and intimidating.
Deadly Boring or Inherently Challenging?
DBAE has been characterized by a respected member of the NAEA as "deadly boring art education," a judgment that I have no reason to doubt was based on some instances observed. But the substantive literature of DBAE is hardly boring, nor are many of the programs that implemented its approach. Indeed, the idea that any well-developed sense of art should be fashioned from some experience in art-making, a sense of art's history, a grasp of principles of aesthetic judgment, and an understanding of the puzzles involved in understanding and appreciating art is inherently interesting and challenging.
Quiet Evolution or Energizing?
Another view of DBAE, in contrast to some other reform efforts that were launched with conspicuous fanfare, is that its activities evolved quietly (Wilson, 1997). The evolution of DBAE, however, as the literature reveals, has been anything but that. In responding to Wilson's characterization, Lankford (1999), a participant in the Getty regional institute venture, refers to the heated debates he and his students often had while addressing a number of controversial issues in the art world. He remarks, moreover, how one of the disciplines in which DBAE is grounded--aesthetics--was helpful in addressing such issues. It is more apt to say that seldom has an idea so energized the field.
Responding to Criticism
It is fair to say, I think, that many in the field of art education were ill-prepared to digest the complexity of the criticism directed at DBAE or to realize some of its consequences. How, for example, does one respond to charges of racism, sexism, and elitism? Accordingly, a few words are in order about such criticism.
Elsewhere (Smith, 1995) I have said that although there is something important to say about a coherent and judicious multiculturalism, an unchecked and uncritical multiculturalism is in danger of evolving into a cultural particularism that could split apart a democratic pluralism held together by shared common beliefs and values. Similarly, while it is possible to say something interesting about works of art in terms of race, class, and gender, a possible consequence is reductionism and the devaluing of what is most special and precious about art and art education.
As for the charge of elitism in its pejorative sense, it is relevant only so long as it insists on restricting access to the best that has been said and created; in short if it is a closed elitism. An open elitism, however, provides opportunities for all to pursue excellence. What is more, the inclination to denigrate outstanding accomplishment in favor of egalitarian standards that are nonjudgmental encourages mediocrity and furthers cultural decline.
Finally, the extreme premises of some of the critical literature in question, for example the premises of deconstruction, are inherently nihilist in nature. They not only constitute a major assault on such foundational concepts as meaning, objectivity, truth, intention, rationality, and reason, but also carried to their logical conclusion, they deny the existence of what is commonly called art (Wilsmore, 1987).
Doing What We Do Best
What the literature of DBAE reveals is the need for a better understanding of the relationships of art, society, and art education. …